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In Review
In Review

In Review

What to stream, read, and see this week



Like the Brighton, England–based trio Esben and the Witch’s 2011 debut, their follow-up, Wash the Sins Not Only the Face, scatters chilling, cathartic moments across a haunted landscape of wails and echoing guitars. Yet on the whole, the band fails to inspire the epic, lingering shiver that it so clearly strives for. Esben and the Witch say they’ve structured the record to mirror the progression of a day, leading with an early optimism that ebbs as they approach the bleak despair of the twilight tracks. But the rushing wall of moody reverb and hoarse vocals—“I’ll leave this place, I’ll disappear”—on opener “Iceland Spar” leave little margin for a gradual fade to night. So there’s little in the way of dynamic flow: The sound from beginning to end feels largely as frozen and unchanging as the tundra plunged in eternal darkness. (To be fair, the closing “Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night” has a frenzied build that carries an excitement mostly absent from the rest of the album.) The truth is that this sense of foreboding gets to be a drag right quick if it isn’t offset by, say, a sense of humour or some punk volatility. Bat for Lashes manages to be both creepy and dynamic, and Fever Ray’s eponymous 2009 album sounds ancient and ominous, even while she’s singing about washing dishes—it’s a ghost story grounded in the monotonies of real life. Esben and the Witch have spooky down pat, but if there’s potency in this project, they haven’t found it yet. ELISABETH FERTIG




In 2011, The Horrors released their third album, Skying, which pays homage to '90s shoegaze and '80s goth-pop and further proves that the band is more than just black eyeliner and English accents. A fantastic psychedelic experience, Skying is also a showcase for frontman Faris Badwin’s more confident singing voice. Higher, which was released December 4th, is a special, limited-edition box set of videos and singles from Skying, accompanied by new covers and remixes by fellow eccentrics like Connan Mockasin, Seahawks, and Cherrystones. It seems The Horrors and their friends have outdone themselves with Higher. The set opens with a Blanck Mass remix of “I Can See Through You,” which immediately sits you down, straps you in, and shoots you off into the dream that is the rest of the album. Some songs even get two remixes, like “Still Life,” which merits a dizzy Cherrystones interpretation and a droning, but much more fun, Connan Mockasin version. With its soft dub beats, woozy guitars, and outer-space sounds, Higher elevates The Horrors to the next level. JILLIAN JOHNSON




It’s 1925 at the start of this sure-footed novel and Hattie Shepherd has just given birth to her first children—twins—and her husband August doesn’t like what she wants to name them: Philadelphia (after their new home) and Jubilee. Though Hattie thinks the names show “promise” and “hope,” the babies die within days, turning the 16-year-old Hattie cold and hard. From this crushing beginning, the novel leaps ahead to check in on Hattie’s many subsequent kids, none of whom are doing very well. There’s Floyd, a trumpet player, working down South but missing home. In this time and place a gay man like Floyd has to be careful, yet he courts danger. Danger has already found Hattie’s 15-year-old son, Six, who’s in hiding after severely beating a boy who called his mother a whore. Though he’s riddled with fear, Six preaches the gospel “like God’s anointed.” By 1951, Hattie’s marriage to August has been drained of promise, and she’s having an affair with Lawrence, a gambler. After giving birth to Lawrence’s child, she runs away with him to Baltimore, leaving August and their children behind. But happiness, when found, is also brief, and Hattie quickly returns home, ashamed and empty. In the decades that follow, Hattie’s children fight amongst themselves, contemplate suicide, and struggle with mental illness. What this family shares, aside from trouble, is a complicated connection to a mother who never hid her disappointment, and it’s a powerful tie. Though jumping between time, place, and sibling drains the narrative of drama, and some characters don’t feel fully fleshed out, this exquisitely written debut succeeds in creating a memorable portrait of a fractured American family. MIKE HARVKEY


Steinberg’s electrifying new collection is not, in any traditional sense, composed of short stories, but rather of the shadows cast by an unnamed woman narrator as she contemplates the minor joys and major failures of her life. Threads connect one story to another to another in ways obvious (as when “Cowgirl” picks up the narrative of “Cowboys,” or “Universal” answers “Universe”) and obscure. Throughout, the protagonist puzzles over her histrionics: “One had a sudden need to be melodramatic,” from “Universe,” and “I don’t know why I’m being so melodramatic,” from “Cowboys.” She’s skeptical of the profound, flatly stating in “Signified” that “[t]here is no deeper meaning,” and in “Signifier,” that “I wish I could give you a climactic moment. But there is no climactic moment in this.” In “Underthings,” a trapped bird “is not a metaphor,” unlike the mourning doves of “Universe,” a story in which “everything was a metaphor.” The narrator feels her lack of agency—“one’s body transported as if pulled by strings”—and constantly examines the construction of her tales: where to begin, what to include, what to omit. Intensely poetic language crashes to earth with crass, self-aware insights: “I was just two tits a hole and a heartbeat,” she claims in “Underfed,” echoing something a male character previously said. Elsewhere, she echoes other men, calling herself “kind of a whore,” “a bigger whore than they want me to be,” and “perverted.” She considers “swinging this body in and wrecking your fucking home,” and more than once follows through on that threat. And all the while, Steinberg’s remarkable voice is just as seductive and dangerous as her narrator. MH



Experimental, bold, and premeditative, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui continues his global takeover by bringing his 2011 work “They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom” to New York. Courtesy of city gallerist (and champion of contemporary African art) Jack Shainman, Anatsui’s newest sculpture-cum-installation makes its American debut December 14. The piece is one of two Anatsui pieces shown at this year’s Paris Triennial show Intense Proximity, which focused on artists, people, and issues across the globe. Anatsui, most famous for his manipulation—and to some interpretations, mutilation—of aluminum liquor-bottle caps, continues his signature use of recycled materials and copper wire to create metallic woven pieces resembling traditional Ghanaian cloths. The opening will be a treat for fans to see a new interpretation of “The Pot of Wisdom” (the artist allows the host of his pieces to choose how his tapestries will hang) and perhaps meet Anatsui, who is expected to attend. SUE WILLIAMSON


Guy Laliberté is best known as the founder of Cirque du Soleil, but he’s also a photographer, a philanthropist, and a onetime space traveler. In late 2009, he became the first Canadian “space tourist,” when he visited the International Space Station. While onboard, Laliberté took several mind-blowingly gorgeous photographs from 350 kilometres above the earth’s surface. The images, of locales such as the Sahara Desert in Egypt and the Euphrates River in Turkey, simultaneously expose our planet’s simple beauty and its infinite complexity. From December 11 to January 5, New York’s Marlborough Gallery will exhibit around 40 photographs from Laliberté’s expedition, some as large as six feet by nine feet. The artist himself referred to the project as his “poetic social mission,” which is fitting: Proceeds from the sale of his work and Gaia, a fully illustrated monograph containing dozens of his shots, will be donated to the charity he chairs, One Drop, which advocates for safe water access across the globe. EVAN BROWN



This indie is a who’s who of TV talent, featuring not one but two actors from Party Down—Lizzy Caplan and Martin Starr—as well as Alison Brie (Community and Mad Men) and Geoffrey Arend (Body of Proof). But wait, there’s more. Arend, married to Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, just wrapped a film with Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the ever-punchable Pete Campbell on the same show. That’s an impressively interconnected bunch of small-screen muscle helping director Michael Mohan bring the crushingly introspective work of graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown to the bigger screen. Caplan and Brie play Sarah and Beth, sisters on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to everything but men—or so it seems. Sarah has just agreed, with reluctance, to move in with boyfriend Kevin (Arend), frontman for a rock band. Beth, meanwhile, is planning the perfect wedding with Andrew (Starr), Kevin’s drummer and best friend. Life seems to be looking up, until Kevin mistakes cohabitation for true commitment and gobsmacks Sarah with a marriage proposal, mid-gig. Too soon, dude. Like a cornered rabbit, Sarah flees, into the arms of bookish Jonathan (Mark Webber, the only actor here without a TV show—slacker!). Kevin retreats to lick his wounds. Beth becomes the fiancée from hell. And Andrew finally tells her he couldn’t care less about placemats (which doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be married; he just doesn’t want to get married like this). Since Brown pushes strongly against convention in his work, it’s disappointing that when his characters, after overcoming their obstacles, make conventional choices. Perhaps the real rebel here is Mohan, who shoots the film with a deliberate, pre-digital, 1970s vibe, giving the effervescent domestic drama just the heft it needs. MH


At the beginning of Victoria Mahoney’s debut feature, 17-year-old Sweetness O’Hara (Zoë Kravitz, downplaying it nicely) gets jumped by Latonya (Gabourey Sidibe) and her posse. But Sweetness has a big sister, the feisty Ola (Antonique Smith), who comes to Sweet’s rescue, beating one of the male bullies into a bloody pulp. Sadly for Sweet it’s a gesture that won’t be repeated, by Ola, who soon disappears into motherhood; by their increasingly detached mom (Yolanda Ross); by their rough Boston dad (Jason Clarke), who holds court with local losers when he’s not abusing his family at home; by Roland (Tariq Trotter), a mentor who schools Sweet in the finer points of drug dealing; or even by principle Coleman (Tim Blake Nelson) who achieves the unlikely distinction of becoming the worst influence in Sweet’s life. As a drug dealer, Sweet enjoys a remarkably easy rise to queen of the block, finding a loyal clientele, breaking out of her shell, and bringing payback to Latonya before taking on even riskier freelance work. All the while, the adults in Sweet’s life, rather than setting her right (which is actually what she wants), simply contribute to her downward spiral. Mahoney, an actress turned writer-director, makes some rookie mistakes: relying on montages to advance the plot; getting into narrative contortions that strain credulity; thinking some of her images carry more weight than they do. But she works exceptionally well with actors, eliciting fine, understated performances across the board. It’s moving, in the end, when Sweet’s father finally tries to, you know, father, and Sweet tell him, “I got over needing to know you.” It’s defensive posturing, but the tiny cracks that appear in this girl and her family bring a bit of hope that the film has actually earned. MH